A 22 day circuit of the horse shoe shaped Annapurna Range, going over Thorong La at 5280m before descending and entering the Sanctuary for the climb to Annapurna Base Camp at 4130m.
This is the story of our third and last walking trip in Nepal, and the one that made us realise that there must be good long distance walking in other countries as well. For our first time there in 1983, we had organised a trip with our school students and some parents so it became a full performance trek with Peregrine Adventures; 15 trekkers, 45 porters and 5 guides. As a result, we felt set apart too much from the communities through which we passed, who seemed to see us mostly as a funding source. Our second trip was much simpler with just one guide and 2 porters, but we still had too many hassles, so for this one in 1997 we decided to go it alone as the Annapurna Circuit had many teahouses and hotels and route finding was not meant to be a problem. Our packs therefore contained little more than wet and cold weather clothing and so barely 10 kg each, with 3 kg of that being the packs themselves.
We arrived at Kathmandu in the early afternoon and had to then endure long queues to complete visa requirements and change money. As it had been almost an hour after landing before we were released, we were concerned about our bags, but we made it to the baggage carousel just as they started to arrive from the plane. We had made no hotel bookings, but intended to stay at the Gauri Shanker which we enjoyed at our last visit. However the airport shuttle operator talked us into staying at “his“ hotel which was newer and cheaper and on the edge of the Thamel. So Hotel Kantipur became our base. The 6 dogs sleeping near the front set the scene for a truly Nepalese hotel, we later discovered that they were only sleeping because they were awake all night loudly guarding the entrance. The hotel ran its own trekking company, so we had to fight them off to allow us to walk unassisted, but they were willing to obtain our trekking permits, saving us the bureaucratic hassle. Leanne had given us presents for Prem, her tour guide on a previous trip, so we hunted down his company but then had the embarrassment of letting him know that we did not require his services either.
We spent our first day recovering from the flight and a very noisy night, as the Thamel remains active all night, with maybe a pause between 3 and 4am. Alison had managed to leave her contact lens case behind, so we optimistically set out to see if we could find an optician in Kathmandu. After walking several miles to many possible places, we eventually found the supplier who could not only sell us a new case but also had the correct lens cleaner. We also found some lightweight goretex jackets and pants, so we now look like a matching pair of bluebirds. We arrived back at the hotel at the same time as Besantir from the hotel who had collected our visa, trekking permit and bus ticket for tomorrow. Amazing.
Day 1, Sat May 3rd to Besi Sahar
Up early for a long bus day, but it was a comfortable ride for 5 hours on a sealed road to Dumre with two meal breaks, heaped plates of rice with dahl and chilli. A 1 1/2 hour break at Dumre then the bus ride from hell for another 5 hours. Overcrowded, even on the roof, on a rough road for 2 hours, before most people left, leaving a normally full bus and only packages on the roof. At least we only got truly bogged once after that. Alison attracted a lot of attention in trying out her language skills, when she asked a young man next to her if he was married. Eight heads swivelled in amazement. Not sure if it was the question or because a westerner was speaking Nepalese, or if in fact she actually asked him to marry her.
We got lodgings just on dark at the cheap hotel for porters in Besisahar, but this was a poor choice because of a disgusting squat toilet and the noise from the porters all getting up and packing at 4 am. The toilet condition became a major criterion for choosing future hotels as a result.
Day 2, Sun May 4th to Bahundanda.
Very hot walking today as we were still in the lowlands, with cooler weather waiting higher up. We discover that the teahouses have lemon tea, which proves as good as Gatorade at stopping blisters on hot feet. Several donkey trains go past, as well as porters with loads that don’t fit on donkeys.
It’s steady climbing in the sun all day with some light relief as we pass two police checkpoints making sure that we are fully paid up and permitted. Passport inspections and forms filled out by the officers by hand with carbon copies make for very good language training for them as well as providing full employment for otherwise underworked bureaucrats.
Our hotel for the night is high above the village on a ridge crest, so the views are fantastic both down into the village and up valley into the mountains. Unfortunately, this was a family run hotel, which sounds great until you realise that this means infants and babies are underfoot, shitting where they will as this is a no nappy culture. Their mother sometimes cleaned up after them while cooking our dinner, but without much handwashing!
Day 3, Mon May 5th to Chyange.
Up early to escape the heat but that meant we started walking on two cold chappattis with jam for breakfast. It looked like today would be an easy day as the map showed the trail contouring along the river bank, but it failed to show the constant up and down as we crossed many tributaries coming into the main valley.
Several donkey teams went past again, in both directions. Interesting to watch the descending unloaded donkeys leap up off the trail on command to allow the loaded animals to continue easily. There was usually 1 man in charge of 8 donkeys, but we did see one team of 40 animals with 5 men dispersed along the team.
Tibetan refugees had established hotels all along the trail, and had also been trained up in hospitality, so these hotels became our preference when available. More open and generally cleaner, so you were unlikely to see infants in the cooking areas like last night. Tonight’s hotel had an unfortunate combination shower/toilet, which was threatening in bare feet.
Day 4, Tue May 6th to Dumuqu.
The excitement for today started with watching a donkey team cross a swing bridge. A lead animal went first and everyone else just followed along. None of this one at a time business like in NZ.
We walked through Tal, a lovely Tibetan village on a lake shore, intending to stop at Dhorepani, but on arrival discovered that this is a major base for donkey teams and so it was very noisy and dirty. We carried on through Bargachap which had been pretty much destroyed in a landslip a few years before. There was some rebuilding happening on site, but more action slightly further on.
Another half hour saw us find a brand new Tibetan hotel where we settled in by 3pm. The hotel was really attractive and surrounded by an apple orchard with an under-story of potato. The consequence of the family hotel has caught up to us with both nursing colds and diarrhoea. A cold wind blowing down the valley also has us dressing up in warm gear for dinner.
Day 5, Wed May 7th to Chame.
It was a hard day of walking today with many ups and downs but overall climbing 500m to reach 2900m at the town. A stone staircase up past a spectacular waterfall in a chasm had us working hard but for the first time the donkey team in front were slower than us so we had to wait for them to make the climb.
Two long tea breaks made the day more comfortable, but we still made the town by lunchtime. Chame is the administrative hub for the valley and appeared to have all the government services as well as large hydro plant for power. The town stretches over a kilometre of ridge and there are 15 hotels, each with their callers out front. We rejected the first as a loud party of 8 Dutch were in occupation, but there were another 2 Tibetan hotels to choose from.
Day 6, Thur May 8th to Pisang.
An easy day’s walking largely though pine forest, but with low cloud and a light drizzle. No distant views, but a good close up one of a spectacular granite amphitheatre appearing to rise 1500m from the river, showing snow on the top one-third. The increase in altitude and cooler temps mean that the apple trees we are now passing are flowering, so making it very pretty along the trail.
One of the common weeds along the trail was Indian Hemp, aka Marijuana, and we saw one Danish backpacker with a huge bundle of this strapped to the top of his pack to dry out.
Tonight’s hotel was 3 stories high and built around a courtyard on the edge of the village. We could sit in the yard and watch village life, but it was freezing, so we eventually retired into a lounge where everyone could sit around a large pot-bellied stove.
Day 7, Fri May 9th to Manang.
Today dawned bright and clear and there were mountains everywhere. As it was such a great day, we decided to take the high level route to Manang which would help with the altitude acclimatization. It was comfortable easy walking for the first hour, but then we went straight up through pine forest to Ghyaru, a village on the edge of the tree line at 3700m. The Annapurna main range was spread out in front of us across the valley for us to boggle at while we sat in the sun on a timber deck sipping tea. A major avalanche exploded off A2 while we watched.
We continued on a sidling trail through another village with walled pathways where we became lost for a while before dropping steeply to the main trail near the Manang airport. There were many horsemen using the road, and even a 2 wheeled enclosed buggy behind one as if the Amish were in town.
Manang was a very clean town and our hotel was classy if not quite finished. Our room even had an ensuite toilet and bathroom, but sadly not yet connected. Even so the room price is 6 times what we have been paying so far.
Day 8, Sat May 10th rest day in Manang.
We were starting to feel the altitude, with nausea and headaches as well as the persistent chest colds that have nagged us since the start. We walked down to the glacial lake but the wind was very cold and we felt no inclination to go further. By late afternoon, we were beginning to feel more human and able to face going on up. Everyone walking in our vicinity seemed to converge on our hotel for dinner with an extensive menu featuring Chinese, Mexican, pizza and even steak and apple pie. No dahl baht here!
Day 9, Sun May 11th to Yak Kharka.
Another day of walking up to high points, this time to 4300m and dropping back down to acclimate a bit more. Most of the walk was above the tree line and generally was made up of easy grades or traverses. We took about 5 hours to reach a cluster of 5 hotels, with the Gangepurna offering a bakery, which together with braziers under the dining tables and electric lights made for an impressive hostel. Fresh coffee scrolls and croissants would you believe.
Digby climbed up another 500m above the hotel to find a herd of Thar happily grazing, 8 female and 8 males with great twisted horns.
We keep wondering if Yak kharka means that this was where a yak died.
Day 10, Mon May 12th to Thorong Phedi.
it was exhausting walking today, although the trail was only gently winding along the riverbank. We’re puffing constantly with any movement but at least it’s only three hours to the hostel at the foot of the main climb.
Thorong Phedi at 4500m is barren, mostly rock with a few small patches of pasture. The hostel was a warren of small stone rooms around a central dining area with a wall enclosing the whole place to keep down the wind. The first room we were given had a broken window, so the wind roared through, but they did find us another room on appeal. Neither of us was able to eat much, but we did manage to keep lunch down despite the nausea. Into sleeping bags as soon as the sun went down.
Day 11, Tue May 13th to Muktinath.
The guide for another group (Hari) decided to take us under his wing and look after us for the climb so he was knocking on our door at 3 am to get us moving. On the trail and walking by torchlight for the first hour with Alison forced to walk in front to set pace for the group of about a dozen walkers. Four steps, breathe, four steps. We saw one herd of 5 blue sheep near the trail but the light was too poor for photos. We took 4 1/2 hours to get to the pass, 5420m, at 8:30. It was too cold and windy to stay long, so after some snacks and photos we headed down under a blue and sunny sky.
The descent of 1600m was even more exhausting than the climb and we took 5 hours to reach Muktinath to find Hari waving us into a room. Sadly his choice involved loud Bob Marley music.
Small mountain horses were commonly ridden along the roads here, but all were equipped with bells to warn walkers. Some tourists pay to ride, only to find that they still are required to walk up hills, scree slopes and over snow.
Day 12, Wed May 14th to Kagbeni.
On down the hill we go on unrelentingly steep and rocky trails through a desert landscape to a small town on the Kali Gandaki river. A howling gale of a wind started up by 10 am, making just being outside unpleasant, let alone walking in it. We reach the bottom with relief after about 3 hours. Small plots of irrigated rice on the valley bottom stand out like emeralds on a brown cloth. The town is built from stone and mud, giving an appearance of great age, but our room and the dining hall in the Red House hotel was all rather new on the inside. Dirt and squalor were beginning to be noticeable again, so it seemed that this area had not yet been adopted by the Tibetans.
Day 13, Thur May 15 to Marpha.
It was easy walking today, strolling along the river valley through Jomsom, a sprawling town with a good museum of Tibetan artifacts on the outskirts. We caught up to Hari’s group having a rest day, but we continued for another 1 1/2 hours to a real town. Marpha had streets, only about 3m wide, but paved in slate, with the gutters also covered. The houses on both sides appear to lean towards each other, so not much sky visible overhead. The streets were kept swept and the houses were painted white. There was a very medieval feel to the place.
We had arrived in serious apple country, so cider with lunch left us hazy for the afternoon. The Hotel Paradise even had a solar apple dryer on the roof. (Digby later tries to recall this design to replicate it for his Samoa fruit tree project in 2001).
Day 14, Fri May 16th to Kalopani.
Thunder and lightning with showers of heavy rain arrived with the morning, so we headed out lateish to avoid the worst of it. We still had a cold drizzle but the wind was in our backs for easy strolling down the river bank. We were walking in forest for a while, but the trail we chose was like a rollercoaster and finished with a barefoot wade back across a main stream. We eventually made Kalopani for a late lunch, weary and hungry with frozen feet. Sadly the hotel had run out of cider, but we were still able to eat far too much and spend the afternoon curled up in sleeping bags.
Day 15, Sat May 17th to Tatopani.
This was a very long day, 9 1/2 hours, but all downhill, so I’d hate to do it the other way. We hunted our way through several rooms before finally accepting one. The going rate seemed also to reflect the room quality, with a four-fold difference.
Day 16, Sun May 18th rest day in Tatopani.
Tatopani means hot water, and that’s exactly what the town has. Natural spa baths for a nominal fee in pleasantly warm water that helped our recovery enormously. We were starting to worry about continuing back up the range to Annapurna Base Camp as planned, as we were so wacked out from going over Thorong La as well as the long day yesterday.
The hotel had also started to run out of food, but what is available is very good, so we just cope without cake or fruit. By evening we’re starting to recover our bounce and begin to look forward to the next phase of the walk.
Day 17, Mon May 19th to Chitre.
It was just as well we had recovered somewhat as today involved climbing around 1200m to reach the Annapurna View Hotel. About 8 hours of walking, where we climb a spur, contour around to the next one then climb again, and repeat. This was mostly in forest, and we had the joy of a pair of weasels race across the track only about 5m away.
We were grateful to make the hotel with no more than a few spots of rain, before the thunder storms that had been rolling around the hills arrived. The hotel was perched on the steep hillside and had a simple but functional room for us with the joy of a hot shower. The water was heated by a wood fired donkey, just like in many of the outback campgrounds.
We were the only guests at the hotel, plus a dog that adopted us on the way out of Tatopani.
Day 18, Tue May 20th to Todapani.
We had to take a little used trail and unmarked track to get back to the start of the trail up into the Sanctuary, but we fortunately had local people redirecting us whenever we wandered off the shortcut trail. They knew where we were supposed to be going as we sometimes didn’t believe the dog who was leading the way.
We arrived on the ridge crest main track at Deorali to find Hari’s group having morning tea. Our map from here showed a 600m climb to Todapani, but we actually dropped 400m before a final climb of 200m to the village. No views and heavy cloud all day, with rain starting again just as we arrived. We decided to stay while the others went on.
Day 19, Wed May 21st to Sinuwa
Dog was waiting for us again about an hour out, and followed us faithfully for the morning until he decided that another group heading down needed more help. The trail was a spectacular walk through rhododendron forest following contours above a huge settled area. The main valley here is along the Modi Khola river and we had to descend to cross it before starting a 2 km stone staircase climbing 200 vertical meters through Chomrong, a linear vertical town of hotels strung along the ridge.
Sinuwa was another 2 1/2 hours along the ridge to a perched hotel at 2350m. It’s good to see kerosene being used for fuel.
Day 20, Thur May 22nd to Deurali.
My highlight for the morning was a pygmy shrew in grass next to the trail. All head and mouth but only around 10gm, smaller than a house mouse.
Blue skies for the morning gave us great views of Machhapuchhre on the right and A3 straight ahead. Steep climbing and another police post for inspections. There were several snow crossings on steep hillsides to negotiate, quite scary with a 300m slide to the river if you slipped.
Most people appear to leave packs behind, either here or at Chomrong and just go up to base camp for a day, a very long day. Hari and his group were on their way down after having done this. We stayed again with them at the Himalayan Hotel, blowing our budget to do so.
Day 21, Fri May 23rd to Annapurna Base Camp.
It’s steady climbing to the Machhapuchhre Base Camp hotel for lunch with great views of Gangapurna and Glacier Dome. The grade eased off after that but the track was all on snow for another 2 hours. The mountains completely encircle us, and you can understand why this is called the Sanctuary.
Annapurna Base has 4 hotels arranged as blocks with sheltered and sunny spots between them so we settled in for the afternoon despite some cloud drifting through. It’s an exhilarating place. The dining room had live flame kero heaters installed under the dining tables, so it’s cosy for dinner, but I had to wonder what the fire safety inspectors would think.
Day 22, Sat May 24th to Bamboo.
We were up by 5:30am but there were still patches of cloud drifting around, and the cloud layer closed in as the morning progressed, so we decided to head on down.
Another dog collected us as we descended, and he stayed with us all day for the 2000m descent. It was steep going and difficult on the knees, so Digby cut some bamboo and fashioned trekking poles for us both. The dog put up about 20 monkeys who had been foraging on the ground until he charged through them. They took off for the trees somewhat irritated.
The cloud and mist continued all day, but again the heavy rain held off until we had arrived at the hotel in Bamboo. We were presented with a bucket of hot water, so our first good wash for some days was much appreciated.
Day 23, Sun May 25th to New Bridge.
We had a climb back up to Kuhldi and the police post to start the day. The policeman on duty even managed to guess who we were to sign us out. The trail stayed difficult to walk on loose rocks, then the stone staircase back through Chomrong. Down and down and down to the river and guesswork following many tracks alongside before the comfortable hotel. Our new bamboo trekking poles we left leaning against a wall in case someone else wanted to use them for the upward trip.
We had much agonising over which route to take from here as both involved steep climbs, but we find out that there is now a third option, contouring around to Birethanti where we can catch a taxi back to Pokhara.
Day 24, Mon May 26th to Pokhara.
The third option worked and it was easy walking for a few hours to the end of the new road by midday. We were able to team up with two Germans for a taxi to Pokhara and the Kuhkuri Hotel on the lakeshore. Again Hari’s recommendation had us in the noisiest place in town, so we shifted further out to enjoy a more peaceful night.